Best of 2019: Spaces and places

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In past growth spurts in L.A., most new development sprung up on virgin land. No longer. 21st century Los Angeles is built out. The challenge for developers, planners and designers now is to patch up, make over, do smart infill.

So when "DnA: Design and Architecture” was asked for a "best of" list for 2019, we looked back at places and spaces we had covered in the past year and found five examples of smart makeovers. Each repurposes an existing space (concrete infrastructure, parking lots, an iconic building, an old bar, a ruptured part of downtown.) Each is privately owned but open to visitors.

Platform Park, a Garden under the Expo Line in Culver City

The space underneath the Expo Line next to Platform in Culver City. 

What do builders and planners do with leftover space underneath an elevated rail line by an arterial road? Often, nothing. But David Fishbein and Joseph Miller chose to make it a place. They’re the developers of Platform , a curated retail destination on Washington Blvd. at the Expo Line station in Culver City.  Platform Park features landscaping by Echo Park-based TERREMOTO and a mural designed by Los Angeles-based textile designers Block Shop, in homage to supergraphics legend Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. This transformation of a barren triangle of space draws kids and lunchtime shoppers who get to experience its decomposed granite paths, wooden plinth-benches and shade-friendly plants under a very urban intersection of car and rail infrastructure and slivers of blue sky.

  More: Culver City's Platform Adds Open Space Below Expo Line Tracks

Second Home Hollywood

Second Home Hollywood is in a repurposed parking lot and remodeled Paul Williams-designed building. Photo credit: Iwan Baan

Second Home Hollywood , the new shared work hub (and an “anti-WeWork,” says cofounder Rohan Silva) with public events space and cafeteria, somehow captures the essence of Los Angeles in its design by Spanish firm Selgascano. The project combines a retrofitted colonial revival building by Paul Williams with 60 circular acrylic pods that sit amidst a web of pathways lined with thousands of potted plants on the site of a former surface parking lot.   

The project features amoebic shapes, oodles of lemony yellow, and lush plantings. It combines tasteful furnishings (Eames chairs in a rainbow of shades) with the artful, adhoc assembly of materials you’d find in early Gehry. Fave detail: handmade grooves in the winding cement paths transform the functional into the artisanal. The novel pods  faced some drainage challenges when the November rains came, but Silva says that the reception to Second Home Hollywood has been so good they are looking to open a second location in L.A.  Listen to DnA’s coverage here .

The Formosa Cafe

The redesigned interior of the Formosa Cafe. Image courtesy the 1933 Group

The Formosa Cafe is a red car trolley that served as a beloved dive bar for tourists for decades since its inception in the mid-1920s. But it closed in 2016, and seemed like it was gone forever. Then it fell happily into the hands of the 1933 Group. They’re known for their meticulous period recreation and restoration work -- dubbed by some as “hipster Disneyland” -- on historic LA venues like The Idle Hour, Thirsty Crow, Bigfoot Lodge and the Highland Park Bowl. 

They brought their magic touch to the now-reopened Formosa Cafe . Everything about it was restored to its former glory and then some. The 1933 Group brought in master craftsmen to lovingly restore what remained of the original Formosa while staying true to the look from the spot’s mid-century heyday but updating certain details for contemporary sensibilities like the onetime "Chop Suey" font. They kept many of the most memorable bits of decor, like the autographed black-and-white headshots, the silk lanterns and that green neon Route 66 sign. It feels like a hyper-real stage set while its legendary booths welcome you for dinner.

Listen to DnA's discussion with Bobby Green and Dimitri Kimarov of the 1933 Group as they embarked on the makeover.

Christ Cathedral 

Johnson Fain built a “boat within a boat” at the former Crystal Cathedral, diffusing the once vivid sunlight. Photo by Tom Bonner, courtesy Johnson Fain.

Purists may be shocked at this transformation of Philip Johnson's iconic 1980 Crystal Cathedral designed for famed televangelist Robert Schuller and his suburban followers, some of whom watched him preach from their cars in the church lot. We found the dramatic interior makeover by Johnson Fain to be an ingenious solution to the needs of their client, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County, who acquired the property in 2012. To express the Catholic liturgy, the diocese asked for less of the building's signature blazing sunlight and blaring TV screens, and more mystery and ritual. So architect Scott Johnson and his team at Johnson Fain devised “a boat within a boat.” The entire diamond-shaped glass building has an inner layer, a screen of 11,000 steel powder-coated plastic-and-fabric squares, bifurcated into triangles that are peeled back -- at different angles according to the passage of the sun -- to let in shafts of heavenly light. 

More: DnA: Philip Johnson’s all-glass Crystal Cathedral, born again as Christ Cathedral, lets in less light

LA Plaza Village/Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial

LA Plaza Village. Image by Heath Collins, courtesy of Johnson Fain

Urban renewal and freeway construction last century tore through the original heart of downtown Los Angeles centered on El Pueblo. LA Plaza Village, a newly completed mixed-use development -- designed by Johnson Fain with landscaping by SWA -- covers two former surface parking lots and tries to sew this part of the city back together. It does this by way of a paseo that bisects the 350+ unit project, threading from the newly restored Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial on Hill, across Broadway, down to La Placita church and La Plaza de Cultura y Artes (a partner in the development of the project) at Spring Street and on to Union Station.

Unlike the many generic new glass towers or white stuccoed 5 over 2s that have sprung up recently in DTLA,  LA Plaza Village also uses vivid color and art to tap into a specific sense of place: namely, downtown L.A.’s deep Mexican heritage . Murals include a 70-foot-tall piece by veteran Chicano artist Judithe Hernández (see below).

The streets surrounding LA Plaza Village, which offers mostly market rate apartments costing up to $5,000 per month (20 percent of units are "affordable" at around $2,000), are sadly filled with the tents of the unhoused, offering a stark reminder of LA's Dickensian divides. But this hillside development, walking distance from Union Station and Chinatown, sets an aspirational tone for a neighborhood that was once the bustling hub of the region.

More: DnA: An LA without dogs or quinceañeras? Time capsule reveals Angeleno anxieties